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Zsolt, thank you very much for joining us. You have just published a working paper entitled “Ideologies of Autocratization.” In it, you point to the various ideologies that underlay autocratization projects today and flesh out their similarities, while leaving room for their differences. To start, can you tell why you think focusing on ideology is justified or necessary when studying autocratization, as many other scholars de-emphasize ideology? Then, can you briefly walk us through those different ideologies, especially the differences between what you call paternalist populism, illiberal conservatism, and civilizationist ethnocentrism?

Political action is inconceivable without some involvement of ideas, values and worldviews, even though there is a considerable variation in the degree of how explicit and organized the ideational elements are and there is also variation in the degree of the causal autonomy of ideas as compared to structural factors, such as economy, universal psychology, institutions, etc.

My sense is that the research on de-democratization has been too much dominated either by political sociological explanations (increase of inequalities, tensions of globalization, the polarization-inducing changes in communication technologies, etc.) or by agent-specific accounts that emphasize the autocratic ambitions of specific strongmen. We need to acknowledge that liberal democracy requires a normative choice, and that there exist alternatives to it. We shouldn’t dismiss references to alternative values as red herrings or as smokescreens just because political actors also have materialistic goals or because they themselves fall short of their propagated ideas. And we shouldn’t assume an ideology-less political world just because no new Communist Manifesto has been written. This is why AUTHLIB is focused on the newly emerging ideological constructs, both at elite- and at mass-level.

We shouldn’t dismiss references to alternative values as red herrings or as smokescreens just because political actors also have materialistic goals or because they themselves fall short of their propagated ideas.

Out of the three concepts, the one that I first started using is paternalist populism. I became fascinated by the parallel co-existence of top-down and bottom-up logics in the discourse and behavior of many actors that are commonly considered populist. And I don’t mean here simply the fact that populists accept the charismatic leader as the embodiment of the people and give him/her a privileged role in defining the popular will. Rather, I mean that some of the populist actors acknowledge that the people are imperfect and perhaps even corrupted and that some elite groups, using the apparatus of the state, are allowed to contribute to the perfection of the people. This is an expression of paternalism, a view that regards the state as the guardian and the educator of citizens and sees the various national authorities and spiritual leaders linked to the state as a legitimate elite. It is characterized by the endorsement of a redistributive government engaged in social transformation programs with a long time horizon. It emphasizes the duties of the citizens and the subordination of local and partial social institutions (schools, churches, cultural bodies, etc.) to centrally endorsed guidelines.

The combination of paternalism and populism, therefore, stands for qualified people-centrism and qualified anti-elitism. This construct is populist because its representatives speak on behalf of the homogeneous people against the corrupt international elites, but the bottom-up logic of ideal-typical populism is overshadowed by the top-down organizing role of the wise, native leadership. Paternalist populism considers elections as a crucial source of legitimization, but one that needs to be complemented with elite-controlled representative channels.

Illiberal conservatism, like most conservative traditions, promotes traditional family structures, social order, and religious (Christian) legacies. But this type of conservatism is not satisfied with the protection of inherited socio-cultural structures. In contrast to many versions of conservatism, it is hostile to checks and balances, state neutrality, rule of law, and influential civil society. It divides society into hard-working, deserving, morally exemplary vs. underserving and unproductive groups, advocates the rechanneling of resources from the latter to the former and projects the hierarchical, male-centered nuclear family as the unit of the political society. It demands compliance with official cultural norms in return for public support and it expects educational institutions to defend traditionalist values.

Civilizationist ethnocentrism emphasizes the benefits of organizing the world around relatively small homogenous, ethno-cultural units, whose boundaries are defined by lineage and patriotic attitudes, not citizenship. These units are then expected to coalesce around civilizational values, more specifically, in the region I study, in the defense of white Christian culture. This ideological construct combines the anti-globalist idea of national sovereignty with loyalty to culturally similar nations that are ready to defend themselves against migration and cosmopolitanism.

To move into ideological similarities, some scholars argue that illiberalism is a parochial reaction against specific encounters with liberalism, rather than a coherent ideology. You use broader strokes, looking at autocratizers generally, but reject the premise outlined above in many ways, noting that “there are similarities in the ideological discourse of autocratic politicians across various regions of the world.” Can you talk about how you draw this conclusion and what those similarities are? In particular, can you talk about what characteristics left-wing and right-wing projects may share, despite being superficially opposed to one another?

I wouldn’t say ‘superficially’, there exist genuine, robust differences between the various kinds of illiberalisms. But it is not accidental that they all end up fighting against foreign agents and rootless, ‘oikophobic’ intellectuals. They all subscribe to some form of collectivism, they are all suspect of counter-majoritarian institutions and they all reject the expansive interpretation of universal human rights. Going one level lower in the analysis, one may note that most right-wing and quite a few left-wing illiberal initiatives are explicitly opposed to cultural progressivism. The global reach of the culture-wars narrative sucks in even those illiberal actors who do not experience the cultural victories of progressive forces. Many of them capitalize successfully on the backlash against political correctness. Therefore, most of them speak the language of traditionalism.

There is a short, but quite interesting, section of the new working paper focused on the religious elements of autocratization. We seem to live in paradoxical times; many societies continue to secularize while politics have in some ways de-secularized. For example, some of the autocratic movements you describe have come to emphasize religious identities and themes, and have been supported in various ways by religious institutions. What explains this phenomenon and what is the relationship between religion and politics today? Are autocratizers and religious institutions merely in opportunistic, symbiotic, relationships or is there a more profound connection?

Religious linkages provide the illiberal movements with both a sense of moral superiority and an organizational network.

On this issue there is considerable diversity, even polarization, on the illiberal scene. Many European radical right actors are secular. Some are supported by the least religious segments of the population. But it is correct to say that one of the most typical arguments against liberal democratic regimes is that they are hostile against religious traditions and that they even infringe on the freedoms of the religious. A further distinction can be made between forms of illiberalism inspired by the grassroots, e.g. Evangelical movements, national hierarchical organizations like the Russian Orthodox church, or by a combination of religious fundamentalists and nationalist politicians, like what occurs in Modi’s India. In all these instances the religious linkages provide the illiberal movements with both a sense of moral superiority and an organizational network.

It is also important to acknowledge that as a result of secularization and theological reforms, many churches are among the most vocal defenders of pluralism, minority rights and compromise-oriented politics. Contemporary illiberals cannot take the support of the clergy for granted virtually anywhere. 

I want to dig deeper into illiberalism specifically. Illiberalism is a topic you have written quite a lot about, especially vis-à-vis Hungary, a country you called a “laboratory of illiberalism” in 2018. Hungary has progressed even further along the illiberal path since then, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won another election last year. Can you talk about some of the factors that influenced Hungary’s descent into illiberalism, e.g., electoral systems, memory politics, charismatic leaders, the history of corruption, etc? Secondly, can you talk about whether you think these conditions are generalizable, i.e., whether they help explain the rise of illiberals elsewhere?

In terms of outcome, Hungary is exceptional. The loss in its quality of democracy was one of the steepest in the world, and this has happened in the democratic, secure, and wealthy European Union. The factors that led the country down this road are not unique, but their combination is. The cause for strong and consistent animosity of about one-third of the population against liberal democracy can be partly found in history.

The post-feudal modernization process at the end of the 19th century was dominated by foreign capital, Jewish middle classes, Habsburg imperial interests, and constant fear of the rise of ethnic minorities. Parliamentarism existed but the alternation of power was not allowed. WWI ended with the loss of two-thirds of the territories, revolutions, Communist dictatorship, and White terror. The Second World War and the subsequent Soviet rule, which included an unsuccessful revolution in 1956, led to new humiliations and grievances that did not unite the nation but rather polarized it, along religion, ethnicity, class, and personal involvement in one or another political witch hunt. Even the 1956-1990 period, presided by János Kádár, one of the most peaceful eras in Hungarian history, has a negative legacy: people learned to succeed by bending the rules. The relative prosperity of the Kádár-years also meant that Hungarians were not particularly impressed by the prospects of regime change in 1990. The old, suppressed tensions between social groups came to the surface, making the Hungarian party system one of the most polarized, albeit also one of the most closed, systems in the region.

Institutional factors played a major role in allowing the illiberal Fidesz to cement its rule. The post-1990 liberal democratic constitution provided many safeguards against majority tyranny, making the country almost ungovernable unless two-thirds of the representatives of the unicameral legislature agree. By not allowing for a second chamber, not mandating referendum or consecutive elections for constitutional changes, and by requiring two-thirds support for virtually any major reform and appointment, all eggs were put in one basket: the assumption was that the two-thirds threshold could only be reached through compromise. But in 2010 Fidesz gained exactly the needed supermajority, thanks to the disproportional electoral system, and rewrote the rules, making a new alternation in power virtually impossible.   

At this moment there is no other country where a similar scenario looks likely, although the Polish case shows many parallels with the Hungarian one. But the recent democratic setbacks across the region and across the world showed that liberal democracy requires both economic preconditions and cultural taboos. The consolidation of the latter happens either because tolerance of other citizens and respect for political opponents is intimately tied with a collective national narrative, like in the case of the Baltic countries that regained their independence as part of democratization, or, more typically, because of many decades of practical civic education. These cultural taboos are still rather weak in Eastern Europe, and therefore democracy is not safe. 

Given your expertise on Hungarian politics, I wanted to ask you a larger question about Orbán’s international reputation, especially among radical right thinkers. In the United States, we have seen members of the radical right fawn over Fidesz and Orbán’s rule. Tucker Carlson famously interviewed Orbán, the radical social conservative Rod Dreher was the beneficiary of a Hungary-based fellowship (partially funded by Orbán’s government) and has written approvingly about Fidesz’s rule many times, and many Catholic integralists like Sohrab Ahmari have done the same. Is it merely that Orbán is waging a cultural counter-revolution as you have written about, or is it something else?

Orbán has invested an enormous amount of energy into building up his international fan base. And while many of his admirers are paid to admire him, this is secondary to the fact that he is indeed the beacon of illiberalism. 2023 is his 17th year as the head of the government. He started his career as a brave, anti-communist democrat, proving himself an effective orator and organizer. His party, Fidesz, is one of the most successful parties in Europe. Under his rule the number of marriages has doubled, the number of divorces has declined and the fertility rate has increased. The constitution doesn’t only exclude the possibility of same-sex marriage, but it also protects the ‘right’ of children to a self-identity corresponding to their sex at birth and ensures an upbringing “in accordance with the values based on the constitutional identity and Christian culture of our country.” What is not to like about this? The complaints about Orbán’s dictatorial style of governance are dismissed by his conservative supporters as leftist propaganda. But I think that the Orbán-worship also tells us something about the changes in the American right. The most important is the new attitude to the state. Many of the American supporters know little about the extreme level of centralization of power under Orbán, but those who know don’t mind it because they are no longer old-fashioned, Burkean conservatives. They are ready to impose with force their conception of virtuous life on society as a whole. In the United States, because of various institutional and cultural factors, this is very difficult, but they applaud when they see someone managing it in his own country.

I want to ask a more theoretical question to end here, in accordance with the line of questioning above – in your view, are populism and illiberalism fundamentally post-materialist phenomena? How might these movements fare when faced with the return of materialist politics, as we may start to see in light of the current cost-of-living crisis in Europe and the potential for climate-related scarcity?

The concepts themselves are not linked to post-materialism, in my view. It is a happenstance, but a very consequential one, that 21st century populism and illiberalism operate in a world where culture wars have such an enormous impact on alliances, discourses, and even on governance. And I don’t see the rise of material concerns necessarily weakening the polarization around cultural-symbolic issues. They may even add fuel to this polarization, after all someone needs to be blamed for the economic difficulties, and it is much easier to use cultural heuristics for defining enemies than entering into cost-benefit calculations. I see the looming climate-crisis also as one that directs attention not on who gets what but on what kind of life do we want to live. We may indeed see some of the identity-related conflicts fade away, but politics will continue to revolve around values such as tolerance, empathy, openness, order, homogeneity, and authority.

It is a happenstance, but a very consequential one, that 21st century populism and illiberalism operate in a world where culture wars have such an enormous impact on alliances, discourses and even on governance.

Zsolt Enyedi studied comparative social sciences, history, sociology, and political science in Budapest and Amsterdam. He is a Professor in the Political Science Department of Central European University (CEU). He has published extensively on party systems, political attitudes, populism, church and state relations, religion and politics, de-democratization, party organization, and authoritarianism.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.